Five years later: Ever-changing diversity maintains Postville

Town still feeling impact of 2008 Agriprocessors raid

Apdullahi Hassan poses for a portrait in his convenience store in Postville on April 18, 2013. Since the 2008 Agriproces
Apdullahi Hassan poses for a portrait in his convenience store in Postville on April 18, 2013. Since the 2008 Agriprocessors raid, a population of Somalians has moved into the area. (Kaitlyn Bernauer/The Gazette)

VIDEO: Life in Postville, five years later

POSTVILLE ó Community members say life may never be back to "normal," but five years later storefronts are filling up, the school population is on the rise and the new faces in town reflect the ever-changing, diverse population that is Postville.

That diversity wasnít obvious walking down the main street on a cold and rainy day last month as few residents were outside, but stepping inside a new convenience store starts to tell a story.

Apdullahi Hassan, a Somali man, is behind the counter. He speaks little English but flashes a big smile when his photo is taken and proudly says "Iím owner." The store offers unique food and clothing items.

Hassan previously worked at Agri Star Meat and Poultry. He is just one of hundreds of Somalians who now reside in the rural community.

Other ethnic stores also have opened within the last two years to fill up vacant downtown spaces and meet the needs of the diverse residents, like a Hispanic grocery store that closed after the 2008 Agriprocessors immigration raid and is now reopened.

Others include a Jewish market, an African clothing store, a vintage clothing store and the Mexican restaurant. A chain retail store, Dollar General, also opened and a new law firm moved into downtown within the last year.

Mayor Leigh Rekow, who was elected a year after the devastating raid, said the community never looked back, and the residents who remained were determined to overcome the tremendous losses.

"We have progressive people and a progressive city council," Rekow said leaning back in his office chair. "Thereís no animosity. Weíre here to stay."

Rekow doesnít deny the last five years have been tough, but he prefers to focus on the future. Whatís lies ahead, not behind, seems to be his philosophy. He touts the population of 2,227, which was about 2,300 before the raid.

The community lost at least 389 residents from Mexico and Guatemala, both those who were arrested in the raid and their families, and a large percentage of the Jewish residents, but slowly over the years some Hispanic and Guatemalans have come back, along with a new influx of Somalis.

Rekow and community leaders in town said things seem to be going well at Agri Star. They estimate the plant has about 60 percent to 70 percent of the pre-raid workforce ó about 700 employees.

Agri Star officials didnít return phone messages asking for comment on this article.

Nobody seems to have an exact number of the Somali population but Candy Seibert, owner of Tidy Wave Property Management, was told by one of her tenants last month there are about 300 Somalis in town. She has about 30 units rented to Somalis and most of them, if not all, have more than one occupant, which isnít unusual for their culture.

Seibert also rents a space to some Somalis for their mosque. It doesnít look like a traditional place of worship because itís in a store front on Lawler Street without signage. Inside, there are no ornate fixtures or decor, only rugs on the floor and the smell of incense.

Seibert took over the majority of the rental property in town after other landlords gave up after the raid. She owns about 50 apartments and houses and also manages othersí properties.

"They (Somalis) seem to want to be part of the community but they are transient people," Seibert said last month sitting at her office desk which was overflowing with paperwork. "They will move for a better job. Most of them moved here from Minnesota and still go there on weekends for family or to shop. They canít get everything (food or spices) they need here."

Seibert said there are some cultural differences but no real problems.

"Itís more little things or funny things like I had to tell them they couldnít keep chickens in the basement or warn them about leaving burning incense," Seibert said laughing. "Whatís weird is when you hear Somalis speaking Spanish or Latinos speaking in Somali (language). Iíve heard that. I guess they have learned from each other."

Police Chief Michael Halse said there hasnít been an increase in crime or problems with the new residents. They are familiar with the laws because most moved here from the Minneapolis area, he said.

There havenít been any serious incidents since that year after the raid, when Agriprocessors was bussing in temporary workers to help keep the plant operating, Halse said. The transient workers would get rowdy in town after getting off their shifts.

John Rothlisberger, interim superintendent of Postville Community School District, said Postville continues to be a unique melting pot of rural America. What may be viewed in other areas of the country as the "minority" may now be the majority in Postville.

There are 596 students enrolled this year, with a student breakdown of 291 Hispanic, 45 African-American and Somali and 260 white, with a small number of those being Asian.

The enrollment has slowly increased over the last five years and isnít too far behind the 2008 enrollment of 604.

Rothlisberger, a retired school administrator who came out of retirement to serve as interim superintendent, said he has learned so much this year.

He anticipated inner-city school issues because of the different cultures, but itís the opposite. Some of the students might be dressed differently, like the Somali girls who wear the "beautiful" traditional gowns, even during physical education, but they get along with everybody and most of the students share something in common ó they come from non-English speaking homes.

"Language is still the challenge," Rothlisberger said. "We are always struggling to get enough translators and teachers, but many of the kids help out. They are some of the best facilitators. We also get help from the community college. And we always get requests from the parents to help them learn English."

Aaron Goldsmith, a former council member and owner of Transfer Master Products, said the Jewish population in the area is 30 percent to 45 percent less today, but some are still employed at the plant and there are still two synagogues in town and the two Jewish schools are "thriving."

Goldsmith also pointed out some new churches have moved into the area because of the new diversity.

St. Paulís Lutheran Pastor Steve Brackett said at least two non-denomination or independent churches have opened to meet the needs of the Guatemalans and Hispanics who may be interested in a different style of worship. Some of the churches where the Guatemalans attended closed down after the raid when many were deported.

Goldsmith said itís all part of the rebuilding process as Postville forms a new life.

"I tell people to look at it like a forest fire ó itís a major horror but now thereís a rebirth."

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